Good Old Boys Gone Bad
Giovanni Ribisi and Keanu Reeves Enter the Gothic South in 'The Gift'
by Bob Ivry
"The Gift" is full of surprises.
Being a supernatural thriller, it's supposed to be.
There's doubt about the identity of the killer. There's also the question of whether Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) really does have visions or if they're just nightmares. And there's doubt the winsome heroine and her three young sons will survive to the closing credits.
On another level, there's the surprise of seeing Katie Holmes playing a (topless) bad girl, the Savannah setting of the film enhancing the story rather than being used as a shortcut for creepiness (as it was in, say, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), and the fact that a genre popcorn movie the kind where every bump makes you jump can have characters who are so affecting.
But Sam Raimi's mini-masterpiece which ran for a week in Los Angeles in December to qualify for the Oscars, and now opens nationwide next Friday was just as surprising for the actors as it will be for the audience.
For instance, Giovanni Ribisi had no idea it was a scary movie when he read the script and signed on to play the troubled mechanic whose rage bubbles over. "I took the approach that it was a drama with Southern Gothic overtones," Ribisi says. "Sam beefed up all the scary stuff in the editing process. It ended up being chilling."
Though Ribisi says he's unaccustomed to being cast in "popcorn movies," he put full trust in Raimi because he "is one of the best directors at working with actors and getting exactly what he wants from them." "With a director like Sam, you trust him," Ribisi adds. "So you can immerse yourself in your character and not have to deal with what the movie is going to be as a whole." Ribisi's character tangles with the villain of "The Gift," who is another of the film's surprises. Keanu Reeves plays Donnie Barksdale, a bulky, bearded redneck who happens to be a particularly menacing wife- beater. Saying it's Reeves best performance to date might be damning with faint praise, but it's true.
"I caught a break with the part," Reeves says.
Reeves did three weeks of "research" before shooting began he found a little town in the middle of nowhere, Rancon, Ga., and hung out with the good ol boys till his neck got good and red. Those days of drinking and fishing and drinking gave Reeves the heft he needed to make his character a more imposing physical presence and also imbued him with a surprising empathy toward Donnie Barksdale.
"Anyplace around there, you talk about Rancon, they say, Those people are crazy!" Reeves says proudly. "Donnie's just good people. If you're looking for someone to go fishing with and drink a few beers with, Donnie's your man. It's just that he's shut down all his emotional responses." Reeves worked a lot in 2000, and he'll have two movies coming out before he enters the world of the two "Matrix" sequels, which he'll be filming, back to back, over the course of the next 18 months.
Those films are a comedy, "Hardball," and a romance called "Sweet November," in which he's paired once again with Charlize Theron, his "Devil's Advocate" co-star.
"She's more of a good thing now," Reeves says. "She's a better actress than she was."
The hunky Reeves and the glamorous Theron, together again. Now, that's no surprise.